San Francisco Millwork Company Specializes in Damage Control

Design Workshops of San Francisco helped restore two historical buildings after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

By Beverly Dunne

The Loma Prieta Earthquake that rocked California in October 1989 left much of downtown San Francisco in rubble. Damage to approximately 120 buildings was estimated at $10 billion according to the Museum of San Francisco. Among the the buildings affected were two of the city's landmarks -- the headquarters of Pacific Gas & Electric, founded in the early decades of this century, and the historic Geary Theatre, home to the American Conservatory. Helping to restore these buildings was San Francisco millwork company Design Workshops.

Three factors made the Pacific Gas & Electric project especially complex, said Nick Gerson, president of Design Workshops. For one, the 75-year-old building was eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. To achieve that status (thereby receiving funding for reconstruction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency), the woodwork had to meet stringent restoration requirements.

Second, the building had to be seismically retrofitted to prepare against future earthquakes and the woodwork had to accommodate the structural modifications. In addition, PG&E sought to connect its original headquarters with an adjoining Matson (steamship) line building as part of the renovation. In effect, the building consisted of three distinct types of woodwork: historic, historically integrated and contemporary.

To comply with the historical requirements, all doors, panels, trim and other woodwork had to be removed, catalogued and stored under the proper temperature and humidity conditions. Certain pieces were stripped and refinished, but others were merely cleaned, Gerson said. "On landmark structures there are certain details that cannot be changed. If a piece had imperfections before the disaster, but it was not damaged by the earthquake, we could not repair it."

For example, on the 14th floor -- a "historic" section of the building -- the wall panels were removed, cleaned and re-installed. Minimal work was also done on veneered panels in the executive area, because the earthquake left them undisturbed.

Another aspect of historical restoration was retrofitting antique hardware to meet current codes. Design Workshops' vice president and product manager Bob Bourdon worked closely with a local foundry to reshape the handles to meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Using the "lost wax" method, the foundry reconfigured the handles to meet ADA codes.

PG&E's 15th floor is considered "historically integrated." Salvageable woodwork was removed, repaired and reinstalled to accommodate seismic retrofitting. The addition of a sheer wall, part of the retrofitting, changed the dimensions of a hallway, which meant that Design Workshops had to adjust the panels and trim to fit, Gerson said. In several areas of the project, it would have been less expensive to build new panels, Gerson added, "but to maintain historical accuracy we had to restore the pieces that were in the building before the earthquake."

Design Workshops also restored a number of rooms on the 14th floor which PG&E originally used as executive offices but redesigned into employee conference rooms. In addition to accommodating seismic retrofitting, the woodwork in these areas had to accommodate certain early 1900s amenities such as fireplaces, stained glass windows and water closets, as well as modern conveniences such as phone/fax jacks, overhead screens and temperature control devices. Design Workshops was also responsible for retrofitting hardware to code, as well as restoring the elaborate herringbone pattern flooring in one conference room.

New construction for PG&E included a walkway that connected the original headquarters to the additional building, for which Design Workshops provided the woodwork, matching the millwork in the new building to the historical woodwork of the original as well as providing 500 new plastic laminate covered window sills. Overall the project took 3 1/2 years to complete with woodwork accounting for $2.6 million of the $100 million restoration.

By contrast, Design Workshops was only given four months to restore the woodwork for the Geary Theatre, Gerson said. It took more than three years to raise the funds to rebuild since monies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency had to be supplemented with donations from local patrons. It was 1995 before Design Workshops could even start working on the theatre, he added.

Restoration was difficult, because the woodwork was removed by an outside contractor who had not catalogued the pieces, Gerson said. In addition, the rebuilding had to accommodate ADA codes. Inside the theatre itself, the shop installed new and restored paneling and rebuilt the "keyed" decorative panels on balcony ledges. Other work included a bar built of pommele veneer, decorative pilasters and window restoration. Design Workshops was also responsible for rebuilding the actors' dressing rooms and public washrooms which were rebuilt to ADA standards. Overall, it took $350,000 in new woodwork to rebuild the Geary Theatre.

Design Workshops was founded by Gerson's uncle Hellmut in 1946. The elder Gerson had emigrated from Germany in the '30s and founded the shop with two partners after World War II. The woodwork company went through a number of changes, including focusing on department stores and high rises before landing on "tenant improvement" work for offices. A mainstay ever since, office work accounts for 95 percent of the company's annual sales of $4.5 million.

The 17,000-square-foot shop houses a few pieces of original equipment, including a straight line ripsaw from Diehl and a Northfield planer that are still in good condition. "The key has been to augment older machinery with new equipment to serve current needs," Gerson said. Recent machinery purchases include a Brandt edgebander from Altendorf America, a Holzma panel saw and a Weeke BP 12 Optimat from Stiles Machinery as well as a widebelt sander and moulder from SCMI.

In general, panels are purchased laid up with veneer or laminates, but Design Workshops has a vacuum press for special projects. All finishing is handled in-house as well. The shop uses high solids catalyzed finishes because they offer "better looking, better feeling," results and reduced VOCs for air quality compliance, Gerson said.

Design Workshops handles up to 300 projects a year with costs ranging from $1,500 to $2.5 million. Helping complete the work are several draftsmen, 25 woodworkers and a team of 22 carpenters who install the work. While most of the work is for local companies, the shop is currently producing woodwork for a Hawaiian bank.

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